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Archive for the ‘Kendo Fighting Spirit’ Category

downloadWhenever I come back to the UK after seeing high level kendo in Japan I am struck by one major difference in our kendo- we show far less kihaku. I don’t mean that our kiai is not loud enough, but overall we do not show the same inner force and explosiveness that our Japanese peers demonstrate.  Kihaku refers to the strength of spirit that we bring to our keiko. Outside the dojo in everyday Japanese a more usual translation would be “vigour”.

How this difference is manifested is difficult to explain, but let me try. It starts from the moment we stand up from sonkyo; instead of a “let’s wait and see what happens” attitude we should be fizzing like a piece of magnesium in water, looking for an opportunity to strike. When we find that opportunity we should explode, accelerating after we strike and taking our determination into zanshin.

Partially, the way to achieve this is through correct breathing – taking a big breath before you engage, releasing part of it through kakegoe, holding the remainder in tame and then emptying yourself on the strike.  Breathing alone though is not enough. We need to be in a state of constant readiness, able to attack at will. When we do strike it needs to be with total commitment. Win or lose we have to give it 100 per cent of our energy and effort. Our forward movement, particularly for men needs to be as fast as possible, picking up acceleration as we strike.

The strike itself should be sharp, not hard. A fast relaxed swing with good tenouchi is the way to do this and it goes without saying that our fumikomi, posture and strike should be as one.  Not everyone is in a position to do this. If you are in the early stages of your kendo career then you are still working on getting the basics right and it is almost impossible to put maximum effort into a strike when you are still thinking of the best way to do it. When technique is practiced until it becomes second nature, then it is the time to leave conscious thought behind and give it all you’ve got.

In my younger days I was delighted to be given the nickname “bullet” by my Japanese sempai. I was sure that this was based on the strength and speed of my attack. It was only later that I learned that the real reasoning behind the name was that when we hit the bars of Kyobashi after training, I was considered unstoppable. Still it was a confidence builder while it lasted.

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Good old days?

Good old days?

Many old timers speak fondly of the days when Kendoka took an “everything goes” approach to keiko. Mukaetsuki, leg sweeps; even following an opponent down to the ground and using kumiuchi techniques to gain a submission. I believe that most of these practices disappeared in Japan after the reintroduction of Kendo post-war. However you can see a good example of “all in” Kendo on Mori sensei’s demonstration for “You asked for it” on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWQlx6CZMOo

Because people knew no better; or because they just liked a scrap, boryoku Kendo survived in the UK through the sixties and seventies and like surviving soldiers on a desert island, whom nobody told the war was over; there are still one or two people who go for a crafty ankle sweep or elbow to the men.

I have to admit that there is something satisfying about taking your opponents feet from under them and I did not worry too much if it happened to me, but now I am older and a bit more brittle, I do not relish the idea of landing on my butt on a hardwood floor. Now as a referee, I would immediately award hansoku to anyone dishing out this sort of treatment in shiai, so it is hard to condone in practice. Defenders of this kind of Kendo make the point, that it fosters fighting spirit, but viewed that way, so does road rage and excessive alcohol.

I believe that one of the biggest reasons for refraining from violence in our practice is that in these days of “no win no fee” lawyers, increasingly stringent health and safety laws and rising insurance costs, we are frightened of the legal repercussions of rough play. Now perhaps I am being perverse, but it seems a shame that we have to modify our behaviour because of people who want to protect us from ourselves, or through the fear of opportunistic litigants.

In my own view, we should not do anything that spoils the flow of our own correct kendo. If you have to break your posture or sacrifice your balance for any technique, legal or illegal, it has to be wrong. Some sensei will occasionally resort to the odd trip or sweep, but that is normally a sign that kakarite is putting him or herself in an awkward situation. So, whilst I am a total believer in “full spirit” Kendo and of the value of the odd strategic push, if you really want to go for it, try Valle tudo.

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Sumi sensei at Imperial

Sumi sensei at Imperial

I am trying to recover after 4 days and 5 nights of keiko with Sumi, Uegaki, Tashiro and Mori sensei.

We have just finished the annual Sumi seminar and by the final day there was a clearly visible improvement in the standard of Kendo for all participants. On the last day we held a grading examination to 5th dan level and for the first time in my experience, 100 percent of the candidates passed. Of course the sensei worked on improving technique and posture and a lot of focus was put on correct footwork, but in my view, the biggest improvement made to everyone’s kendo was through improved kiai.

I sincerely believe that in the UK, we fail to teach beginners the importance of correct breathing and strong kiai and that this has a major impact on the ability to finish waza correctly. Whereas if correct breath control is taught, the technicalities of finishing a technique tend to take care of themselves. Ideally, you should breathe in sharply and hold the air in your abdomen, then let out a small amount of this air as kiai or kakegoe before you enter cutting distance. You should then expel the rest of your breath sharply as a loud kiai at the point of striking. The difference between Kendo with and without this is similar to comparing a bout between two professional heavyweight boxers and a friendly slapping match.

As we get older and move up the grading ladder, kiai or perhaps more appropriately kihaku (the strength of our spirit), becomes more important. Muscle power decreases, so we need to resort to the strength of our mind or spirit to break an opponent’s centre as we make an attack.

Watching people like Sumi sensei, who I have had the privilege of knowing for many years, you can see this transformation. Whereas twenty years ago I feared the speed of his attack, one is now transfixed by the strength of his ki.

So, coming back to our more immediate kiai concerns, what is the best way to train? The answer given loudly during the seminar was kirikaeshi. Deep breath, kakegoe, shomen and 5 yoko men with kiai without breathing in again – then stretch to shomen and seven yoko men. When you can do that go on to the whole forward and back sequence in one breath. It hurts! but, it will make one hell of a difference to your Kendo.

Post seminar practice at Imperial College – Sumi sensei in the second row center.

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